It's been a while and I've been working on this guide for one of the more relaxing and accessible spots within reach of Taipei. If you don't have your own personal transportation, this is an easy location to get to without too much of a hassle. Take the brown MRT line all the way to the last Taipei zoo station, I would suggest taking in the sights at the Zoo first before going to Maokong for sunset.
I have to admit, I'm a little conflicted encouraging people to go to a zoo as I don't really agree with the idea of them morally. When I see these big intelligent animals cooped up in tiny little pens I don't like that much. For smaller domesticated animals it can be a nice opportunity for kids to learn about them up close I think. Anyways If visiting this particular zoo helps them look after the animals better I'm all for that, I just personally prefer to see these wild animals in their natural habitat.
With that personal pretext out the way I'll get on with the guide! Getting into the zoo is very easy (you can use your MRT card), tickets are only 50nt per person. From the entrance I like to take the first right and walk through the formosa animal section to the butterfly house. There are quite a few different varieties of bugs here and plenty of opportunities to shoot some great macro pictures. Where as in the wild it can be tough to get close enough to them before they fly away, here you can get close without missing out on the picture!
For many of the animal photos in this guide I used an 80mm to 300mm. I would suggest you use something with similar range as it is tough to get close to many of the other animals around the zoo. On the odd occasion I switched to my macro lens when dealing with the much smaller reptiles, but for the most part I stuck with the long lens. It gives you a better opportunity to isolate the animals in a nice composition and cut out the various other distractions.
From the insect house follow the signs for the African animal section and bird house. I avoided the african animal section just because I found it a tad depressing photographing a lot of the frankly sad looking big game animals stuck in small enclosures.
On the way there you can stop by the panda house and koala house to get some nice shots of these animals, but normally it's pretty busy in this area. The security usher people around the panda enclosure very quickly, so it's hard to get a good look at them.
The bird house is a little better, where it gives the animals a much larger amount of space to roam around without being stuck in a tiny little cage as some of the larger animals are. There are many different species of bird all mixed together here, which means lots of color to shoot. It can create some nice contrasts in your pictures.
From the bird house I recommend you check out the reptile house which is close by the exit of the bird enclosure. Here I switched to my macro lens in order to get some of the sharper close up shots of the tiny frogs and iguanas. Because the small size of the glass cages it's a lot easier to get up close and shoot the animals without too many distractions in the foreground or the background. It is possible to get a nice bokeh on many of the pictures and really get the eye nice and sharp. I shot the majority of the pictures handheld here, so on one or two of the pictures I missed the mark, but in general I think I got some nice close up ones!
In my opinion this area of the zoo offers the most dramatic and pleasant looking photographs by a long way. But then again I don't have a phobia of snakes and spiders etc. Due to the way the way the enclosures are set up, you can get some clear reflections in the water which provides some nice compositions. Once I finished shooting this area I did a small loop and headed back to the entrance. From here to Maokong you have two different options.
Option number one is catching a short shuttle ride to the gondola station within the zoo itself, or option number two, walk to the entrance and a short 5 min walk will take you to the first Maokong gondola station. On the weekend it gets super busy here, and you can get caught in a long wait. I would suggest either going much earlier or a bit later in order to avoid the midday family rush. The regular cabin is 50nt each way but you can pay more for the glass floor version. The wait for these is at least twice the time or a regular cabin though, so keep that in mind.
The ride up to Maokong is very picturesque and quiet compared to the noise of the zoo. There are good views either side of the gondola, and if you have decent weather you can see a fairly long way. It takes about 20 mins from the zoo station to Maokong itself I would say.
From the station at Maokong you have two options of going either left or right. If you go right, there a short 5 min walk up a gentle hill to several nice cafes with nice view. I personally like to go to the smaller cafe next to the more restaurant style one. The smaller one has a nice outside deck and decent coffee, so it's a good place to grab a drink and relax. The view is pretty decent too, I even spotted a pair of big hawks nesting in the tree tops close by and got a nice shot of them circling! That kind of picture of a truly wild animal is far more for filling then shooting pictures off of lion stuck in a tiny cage I feel.
From here there is a small hiking trail, but I personally didn't feel it was worth the hike as the view there didn't impress much. I headed back towards the station and the left path instead. This road winds it's way through the valleys of Maokong with many more restaurants and tea houses dotted along the road. My advice would be to avoid any place with a big que, chances are it will be noisy, overpriced and crowded. Part of the charm of Maokong is escaping these things! if you follow the road further along there is one quiet place worth visiting. I believe it's called TDH dessert shop.
To get there just follow the road past the first batch of big tea houses. On the way there is one nice road side cafe called 'the lazy cat' but it's hard to get a decent seat there as its fairly busy most of the time.
On the way to the desert shop you'll pass a fairly large interesting looking temple just past the bend in the road. It's nice out of the way place to visit. The architecture makes a nice contrast to the green nature surrounding the temple. Keep following the road and after two minutes you should come across the large ice cream sign post for green tea speciality desert shop. There is a small path leading down off the road to get to the cafe. If you were specifically looking for it you may never know it was here, because it's far enough away form the main tourist area of Maokong you barely get any crowds here. It's very quiet and tranquil setting! I highly recommend the cheese cake and green tea ice cream. Admittedly I have a bit of a sweet tooth, but that aside this is by far the best desert I've had in Taipei I think!
The garden at the cafe has some nice vibrant colours to shoot and admire also. If the weather is behaving there is a nice little outdoor area where you can enjoy the sun and your ice cream at the same time! I'm not a huge food tourist, as much as others here in Taiwan but this is one place I always like to come back to every couple of months to unwind. The mountain vibes and clean air here is a welcome reprise from the smog and crowded streets of Taipei.
The road beyond this winds much further past TDH deserts. On the way there is a small tea museum, and beyond that, a few smaller trails that lead off the main road. Due to the fading light and lack of time I decided against going too far this time. Given a full day here, I can see there being a fun adventure in seeing where / how far this road goes though. I saw some sign posts for another gondola and smaller hiking trails that could be worth a future adventure!
In summary I would say that Maokong is the perfect place come to escape the hustle of the city if you don't have the time for a longer day trip. It's an easy location to get to, and if you explore a tiny bit you can find nice little spots like the green tea desert place I mentioned. If you fancy, it's also possible to do the zoo and Maokong all in one day! They are both close to each other and work well as a combined day trip. If you are first time visitor to Taipei, or a local it's a location I would recommend you check out at least once!
I hope this guide helps!
Until next time
Sy Edbrooke ^^